The Malagasy people in Madagascar have a funeral custom known as “famadihana, ” translated to mean “turning of the bones.” Family members remove the bodies of their ancestors from their graves and wrap them in fresh cloth and then, accompanied by live music, they begin to dance with the corpses around the burial crypt. Famadihana is usually performed every 7 years, and the tradition brings the extended families of the Malagasy people together in communal festivities.
Once the dancing ends and the bundled corpses are returned to the ground, family members run their fingers across the skeletal outline protruding through the shrouds. Bones and dust are moved about in an effort to sustain a human shape and parents tell their children about the importance of those lying before them.
The Malagasy custom is founded on a belief that the souls of the deceased, after a process that can take several years, will at long last enter the world of their ancestors following traditional rituals and the body’s complete decomposition. Many of the Malagasy people believe the boundary between life and death is not altogether impermeable, that the spirits of their ancestors can somehow pass back and forth. To them, the famadihana is a time to share the latest family news with the deceased and ask them for blessings and wise guidance.
The famadihana tradition appears to have begun fairly recently, possibly as early as the 17th century in the form it is practiced today. Similarly, it has a certain elements that are probably adopted from primitive funerary traditions of Southeastern Asia.
Early missionaries frowned on the practice of famadihana and many Christian Malagasy have abandoned the practice. New generations are not as attached to the custom as their elders, and many younger Malagasy feel that the practice is no longer relevant. Nevertheless, the Catholic Church in Madagascar, has ceased objecting to the custom because it regards it as a cultural phenomenon rather than a religious one.
As one Malagasy man explained to the BBC, It’s important because it’s our way of respecting the dead. It is also a chance for the whole family, from across the country, to come together.